Friday, January 18, 2008

Caramelization: I Love You

It's Friday and I wanted to write about one of my favorite cooking techniques: caramelization. True caramelization, not the Maillard Reaction that McGee and others describe as the browning of the outside of meats or vegetables. True caramelization is the transformation of sugars. One photo is of some six hour onions I cooked for a french onion soup (they were darker than this by the end). The other photo is a picture of my current favorite dessert: tarte tatin. Caramelization is one of those things I tell my students to take the long way home on- to eschew shortcuts in favor of "long cuts". I think tarte tatin should involve slow caramelization of the sugar with the apples in the pan, unlike many recipes which call for making a caramel, placing apples on top, and placing in the oven. I like the way the apples flavor the caramel and vice-versa. For onion soup, I hate the recipes that call for a half hour caramelization of the onions, because that's really just burning or "Maillard Reacting" them, not caramelizing the sugars that hide deep within the sharp facade that yellow onions show to the world. BTW, I'm trying to take better food pictures by zooming in a lot more, which seems to be preferred by food bloggers and photographers.

When I cooked the onions for six hours, it was last Friday, which for one eleven week span is my day off. It's a glorious day to have off. Today is only my second one, but I am setting a devilish pattern of doing extremely whimsical things. Today I'm thinking about searching out some super wholesome cream with which to make a prune and Armagnac ice cream. (Yes, I have purchased my first bottle of Armagnac. It's going down the gullet every way conceivable).

But back to the onions.

Last Friday I started those little buggers mid morning. I spent the whole six hours in the "other" room, being the single bedroom of our humble (and very cheap! Goodbye San Francisco, Hello Ballard!) apartment. Seattle is a wonderful town to spend the winter in. If I'm lucky I will not get out of my morning outfit (pajamas, thick housecoat, UGG slippers that are oh so cozy, and a fancy new hipster hat I got for Christmas that I will never wear without the housecoat I received alongside it) until late in the afternoon. I love to sit here all day and watch gray clouds move in and out or not, listen to raindrops fruitlessly attack glass, and occasionally stop to see another float plane pulling up off Lake Union as it heads North.

Back back to the beat, y'all.

I sat in the other room writing the whole day while the onions caramelized on the stove. Smelling them as they went from raw and buttery to aromatic, rich, deepening into an apartment-filling glaze was one of the best days I've ever had. I'm used to these things sending all their aromas up into the powerful hood system of a professional kitchen. I could have drowned on the smell of those onions.

When the onions were finished I made the tarte tatin. That was heaven, too. I love the way a light flaky (pate brisee) crust pairs up with the succulent apples. I used Rome. They hold their shape but when you bite into one they melt in your mouth. I also made mock creme fraiche, though just yesterday I read Judy Rodgers treatise on the subject and I wish I would have found better cream. No matter.

All of this Friday cooking was in preparation for a dinner party we hosted last Saturday night. It was supposed to be a dinner party celebrating the pigs we had back in November. I invited over the people I met and became friends with on that project, promising them spit-roasting leg of pork. Like an idiot I didn't realize when I invited them that I teach all day on Saturday and was going to have to rush home just to get cleaned up for the dinner party. Spit-roasting, I love you, too, but you will have to wait. Leg of pork, I guess I don't love you like I should since I sold your succulent meat down the river for a couple of terrines! Oh I how I treat my beloved food. It's a wonder I haven't choked on something yet.

So I cooked on Friday in order to host on Saturday. I broke a basic rule that states that a dinner should flow harmoniously through textures, flavors, ingredients and techniques.

I served two caramelized courses, back to back.
I love breaking the rules.
I hate breaking the rules.
I'm the worse for it.
I'm the better for it.


Kirstin said...

I wish I were in Seattle!
Maybe if we're ever in the same town, we could plan an entire caramelized dinner

Cakespy said...

OH Lordy! I love carmelization too. I have not eaten lunch yet. Coming to browse your site at this juncture was probably not a good idea. My mouth is veritably watering at the thought of wonderful carmelized onions / whatever!

Scotty said...

When caramelizing, do you see a a difference in the choice of onions?

redman said...

I prefer a sharper onion like yellow or white that is not sweet when raw, since they get so sweet when caramelized. One complaint I get about my soup which is probably legitimate is that the finished product is too sweet. Never tried caramelizing sweet onions! maybe grounds for a future experiment.

Scotty said...

Redman, I think you will be surprised that sweetness of the source onion is
irrelevant, the sulfur compounds that make an onion sharp leave in the
cooking. That's why I asked: try caramelized storage onions vs. vidalias and you will find little difference, I think. YMMV

redman said...

interesting, did not know that. So does that mean it's just a matter of price, save money on the cheaper onion?

Scotty said...

Yeah. I am looking for the reference - I am thinking Russ Parsons - but cooked I cannot tell the difference.

Michael Natkin said...

This post has been on my mind for months now, and here I am with a lazy day.. maybe not 6 hours but at least a few. The onions are already in the pot! I only had 2 white and 2 red, so that's what we've got. I don't think I've ever caramelized red before, curious to see how they are. Do you find you have to add any liquid along the way to be able to cook them for 6 hours? I'm assuming I want just about the lowest flame my stove can sustain?

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